When Anxiety Attacks: 12 Tools

Today I'm grateful to be able to help to lead this quick chat about empathy, compassion & kindness on Twitter and on Facebook live at 6 pm CST tonight. Please join us as we discuss nurturing these three glorious virtues and skills.

After watching the film Angst on my morning walk yesterday,
I'm also thinking a lot about anxiety and stress.
Let me share my backstory with you, one that dates back
to around 1973, when I was starting the seventh grade.
Though I look pretty happy and confident in this shot,
that smile was actually masking some pretty severe angst.

School had been a really joyful, special place in first and second grades; my great Aunt Norma, who doubled as my teacher, was so nurturing and I felt loved and safe. In fact, I was convinced that I was her favorite, that is until everyone who thought felt like knew they were her favorite stood up at her funeral.

Sadly, my school experience in grades 3-6 wasn't a very good one and, with a stern, inflexible teacher and my need-to-please perfectionism, by 7th grade I'd become a nervous wreck. Severe stomachaches kept me from school; I'm pretty sure I was home more than I was at school that year. Unable to find any physical cause for my pain (and believe me, they tried), the doctors told my parents it was likely stress or anxiety or both. They prescribed Tagamet for my stomach-wall muscle spasms and sent us on our way. Somehow we got me back to school, where I was sort of able to move through that social stress without too many issues. It wasn't until I ran away in high school that my parents reached out to a counselor to give me some tools for when anxiety attacks.

Interestingly enough, I am not alone. From Dr. Michele Borba's research, we learn that anxiety is up 40% since the year 2000 in college-aged students. And when anxiety goes up, empathy and intellect go down, which takes us back to the importance of today's #CSChat. Have you set that calendar reminder yet?

In any event, here are some of the things that have worked for me personally as well as a few tricks and tools I have used with success as I work with children and their families to take the edge off of anxiety.

1. Journal. I started keeping a diary during those intermediate years and found that writing and drawing my thoughts and feelings down provided great relief. Can't think of anything to write? List your gratitudes and savor the feelings of peace and plenty. 

2. Distract yourself. Taking my mind off of the uncomfortable feelings for a spell was always a welcomed break. In the movie Angst, one strategy they recommended is to hold ice cubes in your hands for a cool distraction. In a Karyn Purvis trauma training, it was suggested we put our index finger under our noses, as if it were a mustache, for a distraction as well.

3. Move. I started a running regimen in the summer right before my senior year which really helped a lot. Biking and swimming are also go-to exercise routines that help move me through anxiety.

4. Look up. I learned in a Ruby Payne training that when the amygdala sets off an alarm, looking up can help to turn in off. When I see students in panic mode because the amygdala is reacting, I'll often ask them to sky-write their name above their heads because it prompts them to look up and grab a little calm.

5. Drink something. Dr. Jody Carrington, author of Kids These Days, suggests that, since we can't be dysregulated and swallow at the same time, we get a drink of water to help bring us back to rational, regulated thoughts and emotions.

6. Stretch and do body scans. In his bestseller, Dr. Bessell van der Kolk reminds us that the body keeps the score, so it follows that we involve our bodies in this process of noticing and healing. Find some yoga poses that feel good to you, and practice those while you face the feelings that they bring back to you. Conduct periodic body scans to see where you're holding your stress as you learn to let go.

7. Tap. I wish I'd have had this strategy at my fingertips when I was going through the worst of my anxiety. Nick Ortner actually says that tapping the pinky finger is the most direct way to send a calming signal straight to the amygdala, where our fight, flight or freeze mechanism is housed.

8. Breathe. Never underestimate the power of harnessing the magic of your breath, including this strategy that was mentioned in the movie Angst: Inhale deeply through your nose, then slowly lower your chin to your chest to momentarily close your throat while exhaling completely through your nose. Some of my favorite deep breathing techniques include square (or box) breathing, rainbow breathing, and five finger breathing.

9. Seek sanctuary. This hypnotic technique was super helpful as I was recovering through nightmares from the trauma of a head-on collision. It's a simply powerful way to take our hearts and minds to safety. Find your safe harbor; for me it was a hidden castle on a mountaintop or a warm beach on a deserted island, and imagine taking yourself there. Where is your sanctuary? How does it smell? How does it feel? What do you see? What do you notice? Who's there with you? What about it makes you feel safe? How can you bottle that and keep it with you? 

10. Talk it through. Just the other day, I got seriously stuck in the anxiety loop and went into a bit of a panic around planning a bridal shower for Kaitlyn, and what helped me get unstuck was picking up the phone and talking it through with a friend. I'm so grateful to Margaret, who served as my anxiety antidote that day.

11. Practice mindfulness. Use your senses to calm and soothe yourself. Whether it's focusing on something you can hear (like the ticking of a clock or a song that you love), or a soothing scent (like eucalyptus tea, peppermint or citrus), inhale deeply and experience relief as you take in and digest what you see, smell, hear, touch and taste all around you, in the moment, as you unwrap the present.

12. Try Exposure Therapy. In this strategy, most desirably done with a counselor or therapist, we slowly expose ourselves to our triggers so that we can face the fear that ignites the anxiety in us.

As always, do not try to go it alone; if you or someone you know experiences anxiety that overwhelms, do seek professional help.

What are your go-to strategies for help when anxiety attacks?


  1. Anxiety is an issue that a lot of people need to cope up. This is so helpful and informative at the same time. Thanks for sharing about the tools to help anxiety.

    Christian counselor


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